Thursday, July 31, 2008

Parashat Masei

Parashat Masei (Journeys)
August 2, 2008/1 Av 5768

Torah: Num. 33:1-36:13
Haftarah: Jer. 2:4-28
Brit Chadasha: James 4:1-12

In this, the final Torah portion of the book of Numbers, Moses is commanded by G-d to record all of the journeys the Israelites took when they came out of Egypt. Chapter 33 lists these journeys, stage by stage. It ends with the Israelites camping along the Jordan, and getting ready to cross into Canaan. G-d has some specific instructions for Moses to tell the people:

Numbers 33:51 "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: `When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, 52 drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places. 53 Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess. 54 Distribute the land by lot, according to your clans. To a larger group give a larger inheritance, and to a smaller group a smaller one. Whatever falls to them by lot will be theirs. Distribute it according to your ancestral tribes.

33:55 " `But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. 56 And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.' " (NIV)

G-d wants to make sure that His people are not corrupted by the idolatry which they will find in this new land.

Chapter 34 discusses the boundaries of Canaan, which in effect describes the borders of Biblical Israel. Chapter 35 talks about the Cities of Refuge, where those who accidentally kill someone can flee and be protected from being killed themselves in retribution. The portion ends with Chapter 36, discussing the inheritance of Zelophehad’s daughters, who were instructed to marry cousins on their father’s side of the family in order to make sure their inheritance remained within their clan and tribe.

The prophetic portion in Jeremiah talks about the people of Israel turning away from G-d and falling into idolatry. G-d is asking them how they can do such a thing after all He has done for them:

Jeremiah 2:5 This is what the L-RD says:
"What fault did your fathers find in Me,
that they strayed so far from Me?
They followed worthless idols
and became worthless themselves.

2:6 They did not ask, `Where is the L-RD,
who brought us up out of Egypt
and led us through the barren wilderness,
through a land of deserts and rifts,
a land of drought and darkness,
a land where no one travels and no one lives?'

2:7 I brought you into a fertile land
to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land
and made my inheritance detestable. (NIV)

The idea of turning away from G-d is again emphasized in the Brit Chadasha reading. The people are at once chastised for turning away from G-d and being double-minded, and told that turning back to G-d will protect them.

James 4:7 Submit yourselves, then, to G-d. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to G-d and He will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the L-rd, and He will lift you up. (NIV)

How this Torah portion has a practical application to our lives is quite simple, but complicated at the same time: the journeys that we take are affected by the choices that we make.

We are constantly faced with situations in which we have a number of paths that we can choose, and that choice ultimately affects the next journey, with the next set of choices, and so on. Because G-d gave us free will, we’re not little pawns on a spiritual chessboard. That’s part of faith: bathing our lives and decisions in prayer and G-d’s word, making the specific decision, and then dealing with the consequences.

When we keep focused on G-d, sometimes there are no “right” and “wrong” decisions – G-d works with us in whatever circumstances He finds us in. It is when we start to veer away from judging our actions and decisions against G-d’s standards in the Bible and not taking the time to pray over things, that things can start to get dicey. For example, being habitually angry, lying, cheating, stealing – these are all things that G-d warns us about. When we are living outside of G-d’s design, we’re sinning, and there are clear consequences for that – separation from G-d. The Israelites who fell into idolatry did not just do that by accident – they chose to, willfully. On the other hand, Zelophehad’s daughters married according to G-d’s wishes, and as a result their inheritance of land remained in their tribe.

“Oh, but I could not help myself.” “It was the other person’s fault” and other such excuses people make for their ungodly behaviour are common – but self-deceptive. Somewhere along the way, the person had to make a choice that led to the negative situation. This also doesn’t mean that the results of every choice we make, even when prayed over and held up to G-d’s word, will necessarily be wonderful. We find ourselves faced with tough situations at times, and sometimes none of the available options are palatable. But it is better to face the tough times with G-d than without Him.

The New Covenant portion states that that “anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of G-d” (James 4:4, NIV). What does this mean? Again, it has to do with choices. Either we put G-d first in our lives, or something else becomes our G-d. I know people who are so into sports, or music, or movies, or some other kind of hobby, that it is practically all they talk about, think about, and do. For them, that object of their attention is their god. We don’t necessarily have to give up the things we enjoy or the possessions we have – but our focus needs to be primarily on G-d.

There are also people who are quick to make everything spiritual. Of course, G-d cares about everything that we do; He knows the number of hairs upon our heads. But if you are praying about what breakfast cereal to eat, or which colour socks to wear, you might be taking things too far. These things are temporary and external and of no lasting significance.

Finally, even when we willfully sin, there is always room for repentance. We’re human, we make mistakes, and not one among us is perfect. There are going to be times when we do something we shouldn’t do. And G-d’s attitude towards that is: fine. Do what you are going to do. And when you realize the error of your ways, and decide to turn back towards Me, I’ll be there for you. But He is never going to force us to make the “right” choices, whatever those may be, which is why how serious someone is about G-d is reflected in their lifestyle. It is all about choices.

Chazak! Chazak! V’nit’chazek!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Endings and Beginnings

Today was the last service in which Alastair and his family took part. They are moving back to New Zealand to pursue a calling there in the Messianic movement. Alastair is one of the most talented worship musicians and leaders I have ever worked with, as well as an all-around G-dly man. We are going to miss him greatly. The relationship has been mutual -- our congregation would not be what it is today without his contribution, and today from the pulpit he said how much we have supported him and his family in so many different ways. And now, with this ending comes a new chapter in our history as a congregational family, as it means the rest of us in leadership, particularly in worship, have to step up to serve. I'm prayerfully considering G-d's will for my role.

On a different (and very cute) note, during worship today one of the kids just spontaneously ran up to me and hugged me. I thought that was really sweet and it gave me a lift for the rest of the day.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Parashat Matot

Parashat Matot (Tribes)
July 26, 2008/23 Tammuz 5768

Numbers 30:1-32:42
Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
Acts 9:1-22

Parashat Matot demonstrates the transforming power of G-d that works both as we follow His word and as we allow the Ruach Ha’Kodesh (Holy Spirit) to enter our lives and guide our actions.

Numbers 30 described vows, particularly their importance and how they relate to the relationships between husband and wife, and fathers with young daughters still at home.

Numbers 30:1 Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: “This is what the L-RD commands: 2 When a man makes a vow to the L-RD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said. (NIV)

In Numbers 31, the nation of Israel is triumphant against the Midianites, and the spoils of the conquest are divided. Numbers 32 described what happens to the Transjordan tribes – these were two tribes, Reuben and Gad, with large herds and flocks who request to have their portion of the Land of Israel to be east of the Jordan River. Moshe objects to this at first.

Numbers 32:14 “And here you are, a brood of sinners, standing in the place of your fathers and making the L-RD even more angry with Israel 15 If you turn away from following him, he will again leave all this people in the desert, and you will be the cause of their destruction.” (NIV)

The tribes, however, plead their case and receive permission after stating that they will be advance troops in case of an attack. These lands become part of the Biblical boundaries of Israel.

In the Haftarah portion, coming from the Book of Jeremiah, the L-rd calls Jeremiah, and through this call we can see the L-rd’s call on our own lives.

Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
6 “Ah, Sovereign L-RD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.”
7 But the L-RD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.
8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the L-RD. (NIV)

This is not the only example in Scripture where someone is called by G-d to do something, only for that person to have doubts. Sometimes as believers, we know in our hearts that G-d is with us, but we’re still afraid to act even if we are sure He is guiding our actions. Verses like these in Jeremiah should give us comfort and confidence that when He is with us, we need to let go and trust.

The Brit Chadasha portion is from Acts. Saul, a Jewish persecutor of believers in Yeshua becomes Paul, someone who is moved to preach the Gospel.

Acts 9:21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn't he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?”
22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Yeshua is the Messiah. (NIV)

The transformation of Saul to Paul demonstrates how people can change though G-d’s redeeming power. We all have our “before and after” stories as believers. Paul has one of the most dramatic stories of coming to faith in the entire Bible, and one to which many Jewish believers can relate. Some of us come from backgrounds where we were quite suspicious and hostile toward believers in Yeshua, especially Jewish believers, who were seen to be traitors to their heritage. Then when Yeshua comes into our lives, our perspective totally changes. Non-Jewish believers also have their own stories of how answering the call of Yeshua on their lives has changed them.

A believing life involves faithfulness – just like the adherence to vows required in Numbers. It involves obedience – just like listening to and acting upon the call of G-d in our lives. And it involves transformation – just like Paul experienced. Blessed be He who calls us and transforms our lives!